No religion here today

Over on the ever-informative Immanent Frame blog, there’s a post about who constitutes the rather generic group of people self-defined as “no religion” in the US. I was at my first humanist funeral ceremony this week and reflecting upon it later, I thought that there is some way to go before Irish people raised as Catholics and Christians are entirely familiar with what this might mean. People around me asked each other “will there be a Mass?” and “that was lovely” in a genuine sense of curiosity (or perhaps they thought there was going to be an animal sacrifice instead). In public, the Irish Humanist Association has stated that there may be as many as 250,000 people with no religion in Ireland but this, as appealing as it might be for struggling co-non-religionists, is not the whole picture. So who are the non-religionists in Ireland? I’m only going to examine the Census 2006 returns here but the first Irish Census where “no religion” appeared as a distinct choice was in 1961, which might surprise some.

Christopher McKnight Nichols makes an interesting observation about Hispanic Catholics in the US which might provide a relevant starting point here:

As of 2008, Catholics, in fact, continue to switch from their religious affiliation to “none” status in large numbers and 35 percent of “nones” are former Catholics, the most by far of any “switching” group. So, if Hispanic Catholics continue this trend their ranks may help to swell the numbers of “non religionists.”

So in Census 2011 will we see increases in the no-religion group and if we do, will we know from where they have ‘switched’? There is undoubtedly and rightly a lot of anger about the institutional failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland and from the abuses outlined in the Ryan and Murphy reports. Regular Mass attendance for Catholics is declining but what do we know about Ireland’s non-religionists? Instead of thinking of people who tick this particular box as rabidly anti-clerical or as chip-on-shoulder lapsed Catholics, there is as much diversity as there is among the mainstream churches. There are Dawkins-style atheists, individualised self-defining spiritualists and agnostics among the ranks.

In 2006, there were 186,318 who chose the “no religion” option on the Census form and this accounts for about 4% of the total population of the Republic. 43% of this group is resident in Dublin with a further 12% in Cork and smaller sub-10% proportions in other counties. County Longford is the county in Ireland with the smallest proportion of people who choose this “no religion” category. Counties Laois, Offaly, Monaghan and Cavan also have very small numbers of non-religionists which for some might be a political comfort rather than a source of further analysis.

However, there was a 98% increase in non-religionists in Longford between Censuses and a 65% intercensal increase over the same period. Dublin and Cork have seen steady increases of between 35 and 45% between 2002 and 2006 and this is consistent with the State increase in non-religionists of 35%. The table below shows the numerical increases since 1961 for a few selected counties.

Carlow Dublin Longford Cork Galway Sligo
1961 1 630 1 197 14 7
1971 42 4869 41 684 116 20
1981 179 20492 135 4105 1567 407
1991 343 33269 163 7567 3191 722
2002 906 62556 340 15782 7491 1677
2006 1384 80737 674 21559 10725 2187

As a proportion of each region’s total population, there are a number of differences between men and women. 8% of about  582,000 Dublin men have no religion whereas just 5% of 604,000 women who live in Dublin have no religion. In the State as a whole, 5% of men and about 3.5% of women have no religion although this varies across these larger county-aggregated regions. How can we account for these slight differences? The (badly formatted) table below shows these differences across the region. Again we can see a midland region whose residents are more likely to be of some religion than none.

Border Dublin Mid-


Midland Mid-






Men 3.2 8.2 4.9 2.8 3.9 3.6 5.0 4.3
Women 2.2 5.5 3.3 1.8 2.7 2.4 3.6 3.1

Finally, when we look at the proportion of the population’s social classes and ages of those that have no religion, there is also, at first glance at least, the semblance of a pattern emerging. It is said that there are no atheists on deathbeds and indeed the proportion of the different age cohorts would seem to bear this out, but the picture is more nuanced than this. The proportion of each age cohort that have no religion doubles once we reach the 20 to 24 age group: 3.5% of 15 to 19 year olds have no religion whereas the next group up amount to 7.5% of that cohort. The proportion of 35 to 39 year olds who have no religion is the next group where a ‘dramatic’ change occurs: 5.6% of this age cohort report that they have no religion.  We may well see here a first half of life commitment to rejecting religious belief but of course there is also the generational effect of religious education and more general processes of secularisation to put into the mix. From this point onward in people’s lives, the proportion gets very small with just 1.3% of all 70 to 74 year olds having no religion. Just 0.7% of the 85 years and older age group have no religion which, at the least, is a hell of a commitment considering the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church for the first 50 years of their long lives.

In terms of social class, we might expect that those in the lower social class groups (where 1 is professional and 6 is unskilled) would have no religion. (There are 7 social classes in the Irish Census but for brevity I have taken 6.) There is an anecdotal understanding (backed up with a little quantitative evidence) that those in the professional classes (perhaps with longer educational experiences) are more likely to reject religion. As the final (badly formatted) table below shows, there is a consistent decrease going from class 2 to 6 in the number of people with no religion with one major outlier: the professional classes.

1. Professional workers 2. Managerial and technical 3. Non-manual 4. Skilled manual 5. Semi-


6. Unskilled 7. All other gainfully occupied and unknown
20964 54979 26773 24982 19356 5227 34037

What can account for this smaller number in the professional classes having no religion? In a post for next week, I’ll take these last data and proportion them in the context of the other categories and the total population for each of these social classes. For that, there will be a little more detail but this is a start.